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Twenty-Five Years Ago, John Carpenter and Wes Craven Made Two of the Scariest, Savviest Horror Movies to Date

Happy Halloween—let’s talk about ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ and ‘New Nightmare’

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The two best horror movies of 1994 pivot on the same basic premise: What if popular culture were a conduit for something evil to enter our world? In John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, the collected works of a reclusive, bestselling author are revealed to be laying the groundwork for an extra-dimensional invasion of the very alien beings they describe in revolting, Lovecraftian detail; in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a popular slasher-flick franchise is haunted by the spirit of its fictitious figurehead, who has designs on escaping into the real world. Considering how often they’d each been criticized for filling their films with relentless, explicit violence, it’s unsurprising that Carpenter and Craven would have wanted to examine—and critique—the idea that the things we watch can actually hurt us, as well as their complicity in that process. As midcareer comeback vehicles by beloved genre specialists, both movies were well-received. But 25 years later, In the Mouth of Madness and New Nightmare hold up as something more—twin masterpieces channeling contemporary anxieties about mass-produced entertainment.

On paper, New Nightmare is the more personal of the two movies. Having leveraged most of his company’s assets to get the original Nightmare financed—and then being excluded from a considerable portion of the profits—New Line Cinema CEO Robert Shaye was determined to wring every cent out of his studio’s valuable intellectual property, even if the results tarnished the integrity of an ingeniously realized thriller. Craven was excluded from the making of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and crafted a new story as a satirical rebuttal to the studio’s mercenary mind-set, imagining a universe where A Nightmare on Elm Street existed as a box office behemoth and then going behind the scenes to show Freddy Krueger dicing up the participants in an ill-fated cash-in sequel. His treatment was intended to kill off the Freddy character, and with him the franchise, which is why Shaye and New Line rejected it at first: His proposal lost out to the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. But by the early ’90s, in the shadow of diminishing creative and commercial returns for the Nightmare films—and a general malaise in horror cinema across the board—the concept suddenly seemed viable.

This time, Shaye was in on the joke, appearing in a slyly personalized cameo that doubled as a burying of the hatchet with his meal-ticket auteur. “You interested in making the definitive Nightmare with us?” Shaye asks Heather Langenkamp, similarly cast as “herself,” which is to say as an actress whose notoriety as Freddy’s rival has hovered over her attempts at a career outside of horror movies. In New Nightmare, her resigned irritation at being associated with a long-standing slasher brand aligns with a feeling of being truly haunted by her participation in Nightmare on Elm Street; it literally keeps her up at night. As a teenage performer, Langenkamp had seemed weary beyond her years; as a 30-something, she has just the right quality to portray a woman trapped by her younger incarnation. Her inability to grow out of her connection to Nightmare connects smartly to the larger point about franchise fatigue and its predatory attempts to perpetually cultivate an adolescent audience.

Heather gives New Nightmare its entry point, but Freddy Krueger is its star. A talk-show appearance by Robert Englund in full Freddy drag calls attention to the character’s strange and unsettling appropriation as a pop-cultural icon—high-fiving kids with his trademark elongated finger-knives, he’s less a defanged demon than a deceptively benign avatar of commodified mayhem. Although Englund’s performance in A Nightmare on Elm Street had its comic elements, the character’s viciousness was dead serious, and Craven’s guilt about conceiving a character whose sadism became a selling point in later years is on full display in New Nightmare. Playing himself, he admits to Heather that Freddy came to him in the same sort of dream as Krueger comes to the film’s characters, and that he let himself be manipulated into integrating him into a script—a variation on the Faust mythos.

Two years later, Craven would double down on the idea of self-reflexive horror in Scream, a movie similarly set in a world where Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees have become aspirational icons, and yet for all that film’s clever deconstructions of genre tropes—like watching a fully conscious patient narrate his own open-heart surgery—New Nightmare is the more profound piece of work. What made the original Nightmare so effective was its immersion in the terror (and eroticism) of dreams; by heavily borrowing from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its idea that sleep is the enemy, Craven was able to smuggle surrealist imagery into a genre defined by its gory literalism. The most indelible moments in A Nightmare on Elm Street are the ones that replicate the fleeting vividness of hallucinations, like the forlorn sacrificial goat that wanders through Nancy’s subconscious during a classroom catnap; the iconic, Psycho-inspired shot of Freddy’s glove reaching between her legs while she dozes in a bubble bath is unsubtly (and unsettlingly) styled as a wet dream. New Nightmare doesn’t contain anything quite so potent, but it’s still a fine showcase for Craven’s adroit visual metaphors, like the trail of sleeping pills that Heather follows like fairy-tale bread crumbs into Freddy’s world to rescue her young son—a quest that gives the movie a well-placed tinge of the mythic.

Where Craven was attempting to exorcise his frustrations over seeing his pitch-black original reduced to a jokey shadow of itself, John Carpenter came to In the Mouth of Madness in a more mercenary way: He was offered the script by New Line executive Michael De Luca, who would go on to recruit Paul Thomas Anderson to the studio for Boogie Nights. De Luca had selected Carpenter largely on the strength of the director’s apocalyptic streak, which manifested in a series of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it classics beginning with The Thing and including Prince of Darkness and They Live. The dots between the latter and In the Mouth of Madness are easy to connect. Arguably the most intellectually sophisticated sci-fi movie of the ’80s, They Live’s story of a drifter who turns into Chicken Little after putting on a pair of special sunglasses that allow him to literally see through an alien invasion plot juxtaposed the watch-the-skies paranoia of the 1950s with the class-based resentment of the Reagan ’80s; when a very Gipper-esque ghoul intones that it’s “morning in America” during a television broadcast, the insinuation of trickle-down economics as cover for the enslavement of humanity serves as ferocious social commentary.

They Live is a film of surfaces being ripped way to reveal the true, subliminal horror underneath—a device out of the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. The author of classics like The Colour Out of Space was one of De Luca’s inspirations, and Carpenter was a fan, too, which is why despite passing on In the Mouth of Madness in the late ’80s he came back around to it in 1992, with the flop of his Chevy Chase comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man helping to nudge him toward a return to horror. The director’s wit is on display from the very first sequence, which quotes the opening of his own Christine, substituting the assembly-line production of a blockbuster paperback for that of a muscle car, all to a Metallica-style guitar riff (composed by Carpenter himself).

Like any good Lovecraft novel, In the Mouth of Madness begins with a deranged character recounting his adventures from the confines of a padded cell. After being charged with locating the AWOL author Sutter Cane (played in a perfect piece of casting by Euro-sleaze avatar Jurgen Prochnow), whose novels “outsell Stephen King two-to-one,” insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) comes to suspect his disappearance is a publicity stunt. He’s right that there’s a conspiracy, but short-sighted into how high up—or low down—it really goes. Carpenter has great fun with the idea of a smart, sober character struggling with his own apparent susceptibility to the kinds of penny dreadfuls he considers himself to be intellectually above. As the movie goes on, John comes to understand that Cane is a great writer, but also that what he’s been churning out all these years is actually nonfiction: His output is the result of a Faustian bargain by which he’s preparing Earth’s population for the appearance of long-dormant monsters set on colonizing their society once and for all.

“They live,” in other words, and In the Mouth of Madness is very nearly that movie’s equal in the scary-funny department, with less of an overtly political edge but a greater emphasis on the idea of horror as a commodity. “They’re making a movie next month,” says Cane at one point, recasting the end of days as just so much IP; here, the idea of an extended cinematic universe is made palpably sinister. Carpenter’s commercial decline from the heights of Halloween into an iconoclastic middle age has only made him more beloved to hardcore horror fans, but it’s hard not to sense a certain rueful bitterness in In the Mouth of Madness, with its subtext of monstrous mainstream conformity; it also registers, in the context of the sleek, anodyne ’90s, as an attempt to reclaim old-school truths, from the Lovecraftian trappings to the handcrafted analog special effects, which defy CGI through sheer, joyful force of cheesiness. “This is not reality,” John pleads at a decisive moment late in the film—a futile cry of repression against a larger truth that threatens to break through at any moment.

As the decade went on, filmmakers would find new and increasingly technocratic ways to evoke the psychic spillage between pop culture and its consumers, from the army of J-horror phantoms emerging mournfully from TV and computer screens to the first-person-camcorder freak-outs of The Blair Witch Project. But looking back through the lens of 25 years, Craven’s and Carpenter’s visions of entertainment weaponized against its most loyal fan bases by dark forces still look scarier—and savvier—than the rest.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.